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5 Startup Lessons That Could Have Saved Me 5 Years

Want to overcome some of the hurdles of starting a business? These tips will help you reach the finish line faster.

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Starting a business is tough. Everyone knows this. And, I’ve learnt it the hard way. I’ve built a fair number of products and even successfully brought five of them to market. “Five products” might sound like a lot at first, but it’s actually nothing compared to the number of products and ideas I’ve dismissed. Dismissing bad or even “good” ideas is one of the best things you can do as an entrepreneur because the “good” ideas always steal from the best ideas. Start with absolutely the best idea you can.

So, how do you know if you have the right idea or just a “good” one? With these five lessons, I’ll show you how I learned to see the difference. If I had known and truly understood these lessons from the very beginning, it would have given me five more years to work on my best idea.

1. Embrace the problem.

I often find myself saying sentences starting with: “I would like to do . . .” This sounds harmless at first, but is actually pretty dangerous because it’s solution-centric. A better way to start a sentence would be: “Isn’t it ridiculous that people are still dealing with X problem in 2017?” That’s problem-centric and has a lot of advantages.

I look at the current AI trend and, as someone that has a lot of experience in this field, I get really excited. People are attempting to work AI into virtually everything, but it would be better to find the few big problems where AI can remove a real pain for people. When I look closely at it, I sometimes find that I could solve a problem and serve customers better without any AI at all.

Related: How To Make Sure You Don’t Give Up On Your Road To Entrepreneurial Success

The best ideas often come when you’re looking to solve a problem you’ve had yourself. It’s how many great companies got started: Airbnb started when a guy slept on the founders air mattress during a conference. Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted a better way to search the internet. Kevin Systrom just wanted to make it easy to create and share beautiful pictures (hello, Instagram).

The main difference between these companies and the AI trend is that they were problem-focused from the beginning. If you are following a trend like AI, wearables, IoT etc., you’re probably focusing too much on the solution and not enough on the problem. While it may be great to be able to have a conversation with your refrigerator, do you need to? I’m pretty sure a shopping list taped to the front of it would probably be easier, because who doesn’t have a pen and paper?

As tempting (and adorable) as it may be, creating an app that filters different puppy breeds over your selfies isn’t going to pay the bills. It may go viral for a while, but in the end it’ll likely not have staying power. Plus, Snapchat could erase your market in a heartbeat. There are thousands of apps and websites that fulfil humanity’s seemingly inherent need for cuteness, for fun or for vanity. But, rarely are they the kind of tool that becomes a necessary part of people’s daily lives.

2. Embrace competition.

I can remember my first time finding a competitor. I was three months into a new project and was browsing the web on a late winter’s evening. And, there it was: The exact same idea, the same solution, but years ahead of me. I was shocked. I couldn’t sleep that night. “How can I possibly get ahead? Or should I quit immediately?”

Fast forward: Today, I not only accept the fact that there is always competition, but also know it’s a good sign when there is (and a big red flag when there isn’t). Even more so: I embrace it. I (try to) start to fall in love with the solutions of my competitors. After all, we are working on the same problem, and they are usually passionate about solving it, too! Having competition proves that there’s a market for your idea. You just need to be better than the existing products on the market. When I started thinking about our latest product, Zenkit, we created a list of over 200 competing products. We learned both the good and the bad things from them.

Whenever I talk to other people in the startup community, I ask, “Why do you think it will make money?” The answer is usually some variation of “Because no one else is doing it!” I’ve heard this many times over my 25-plus years in the business. While I would love to believe that brand new ideas that no one has thought of will continue to come our way, I don’t think that’s usually the case. If no one else is doing it, it means one of two things: Either the guy I’m talking to doesn’t have a complete view of the market, or there isn’t a market in the first place. Google wasn’t the first, Amazon wasn’t the first, and neither was Facebook. They each took an idea and made it better. Good artists copy, and great artists steal ideas.

What happened to that first project I mentioned, you may ask? In that particular case, I quit a week later. Today, I know why: I was in love with the solution and not the problem (see lesson 1).

Related: 5 Ways To Validate A Business Idea, Right Now

3. Tell people about it.

I mentor a lot of startups in my local community here in southern Germany. I can almost instantly tell a founder’s personal process by how open they are in talking about their projects.

If they’re talking about NDAs, I know they need more time. I don’t want to pry into all the inner workings of what they’re trying to do, but I need to understand enough to give usable advice. This is really important. Many entrepreneurs think that they need to keep their idea a secret to keep people from stealing it. So I always ask what the problem is that they’re trying to fix and explain that to me instead. Unfortunately, often times I realize that they don’t have a clue about the problem (see lesson 1) or the competition (see lesson 2).

Most ideas have already been thought of, and probably even attempted. The reason you need to tell people about your idea is because you need to validate your idea and make sure it alleviates a real pain for people.

Feedback is absolutely key. It’s all well and good to think that you can develop a product under the radar, and on some magical date in the future, go public and take over the world. The problem is that you’ll have no feedback on whether your final product actually fixes the problem you’re trying to fix. And, you can’t know that until enough people have seen it and told you how, or even if, it helped them. So get your idea out there, get as many people as you can to test it and don’t waste time worrying that someone will copy you. If they do, then they’re further validating your concept — now you just need to work hard to make the best version! Out-performing and executing will almost always win over the first mover in a space.

4. Listen to your customers.

Customers show you the pain and the problem that you’ll need to solve. When I built our first product, Chilibase, it was loved by the press. Everyone was telling me how great it was. I felt great about it, too. Chilibase was built as the first social graph for emails. However, in talking with our customers about it, I got the same feedback nearly every time: “Chilibase is cool, but what I really need is a good way to search through my emails!”

Since Chilibase couldn’t do that, it inspired me to develop Lookeen. Our customers were telling me where it hurt, and it wasn’t where I originally thought it was. At the end of the day, Chilibase was nice to have, but what our customers really needed was a search tool.

The search tool that we built has been successful specifically because we listened to our customers. If you don’t, not only will you miss opportunities, but you might do something much worse: Build a solution without a problem.

Related: 5 Common Legal Mistakes Start-Ups Make – And How To Avoid Them

5. It gets easier. And it’s worth it.

Using the first four idea filters above, I’m able to zero in on an idea that I’m passionate about, that solves a real problem for people and that has a good chance of making money.

Being passionate about the problem will help you weather the tough times. Starting a business is never easy and there are often hundreds of obstacles, big and small, that you face all the time. Passion not only helps you enjoy the good times, but it encourages you to see the obstacles as opportunities — to learn from your mistakes, accept criticism and maybe change your path when needs be. When you’re able to work through the challenges your business throws at you, the success you gain later on is even sweeter.

This focus on real world issues also helps you stay motivated when facing the tough realities of starting a business. Remember, a single piece of positive feedback from a user can keep you from giving it all up for an easier path. Knowing that you’re making a difference to not just your own life, but potentially the lives of many, is an extremely powerful motivator.

Lastly, finding that pain point and creating the cure will allow you to be more successful. If you’re able to build something that people not only want, but need to use, it will make your push into the market that much easier.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com

Martin Welker is the founder and CEO of collaboration platform Zenkit. After finishing his studies in computer science at KIT in Germany, he established Axonic, where he created one of the leading AI-driven engines for document analysis. In 2007, Axonic published Lookeen, an email search solution. Since then, Axonic has developed six products and serves over five million people worldwide.

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Start-up Advice

4 Tips To Secure Funding For Your Start-up

Here are 4 tips to help you secure funding for your start-up.

Ellie Martin

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Entrepreneurs seek to create new and ingenious ideas. Successful business owners are adept at looking at things in new and interesting ways. Their creativity fuels everything they do. Blazing through the initial steps of opening your own start-up can seem like a breeze if you’re endowed with this creative mojo, but you still may find yourself stuck at the very last step of starting your business.

Finding funding is undoubtedly the most difficult part of starting a business, and securing it requires the most creativity of all. Still, you can only stretch your creativity so far. Luckily, there are a few ways you can improve your chances of getting the money you need, regardless of whether you decide to attract angel investors or venture capitalists, or if you decide to apply for small business loans and grants.

Here are 4 tips to help you secure funding for your start-up:

1. Seek alternative funding opportunities

Before taking out a massive bank loan, consider these other funding options:

The vast majority of entrepreneurs either use their own funds to start their business or borrow money from friends and family. According to Forbes, 90% of start-ups fail, with 25% of them failing within their first year of operation. Due to this rate of failure, if it really is impossible for you to attract investors or secure venture capital, it is still best to avoid putting up your own money. Before draining your personal savings account, look into other options, such as crowdfunding. Research small business grants as well, as these can help cover gaps in funding.

2. Write a top-of-the-line business plan

If you’re interested in attracting investors, you’ll need a solid business plan to lure them in. Regardless of how wonderful your idea is, you must communicate that idea effectively and back up your claims with thorough research. A tightly organised business plan has the ability to assure investors of your industry know-how. It will give them a picture of how you plan to run your business and how accurately you can assess and address risks.

An entrepreneur who has a business plan with a punchy executive summary and a precise market analysis in hand is more likely to attract shrewd investors than one with only an inspired (and undeveloped) idea.

Related: Business Plan Format Guide

3. Network, network, network

The absolute best way to find investors is to network. Generally, you never want to cold call investors with your business ideas. You want to build relationships naturally with those in your industry and in your local community. Talk with other business leaders and go to local events. Offer to help other entrepreneurs and established business owners. They may return the favour by introducing you to reliable angel investors or they may steer you to a venture capital firm that helped launch their start-up. They may even offer to pitch in some of their own cash, if they really take to your idea.

Moreover, to make sure your networking efforts are effective, try to pinpoint the audience who would be most interested in your idea.

“Network selectively,” advises American author and entrepreneur, Steve Pavlina. “Take the time to build a profile of your ideal customers, and target your networking activities to reach them. Speak to those who are already predisposed to want what you offer.”

Building connections is a vital part of creating your business. You’ll need to build new ones and strengthen existing ones, not only to get the funding you need in the short term, but also to survive as a business in the long term. 

4. Be prepared to compromise

Asking for funding for your startup means experiencing failure time and time again. Most of the investors you’ll encounter will pass on your idea. You shouldn’t take this to heart. It’s all a part of the process. You may find that in order to get the funding you need you’ll have to give a small piece of the business over to an angel investor.

Your first crowdfunding effort may fall short, and you might have to incorporate feedback from backers and implement changes to the core of your idea to crowdfund successfully the next go around. Don’t be too rigid with your vision. If you’re willing to make some slight changes, you could have a much better shot at landing a deal.

Securing funding for your start-up is no easy task, but it is certainly not one you have to do alone. Enlist the help of friends, family, and business associates to help you craft a superb business plan, meet other entrepreneurs and investors, and make revisions to your idea. Use their input to help you find other ways to fund your start-up, such as small business grants and crowdfunding. Use these 4 tips for securing funding for your start-up, continue researching your target market and refining the way you approach investors. Without a shadow of a doubt, if you’re willing to seek the advice of others and compromise when necessary, you’ll find a way to fund your start-up.

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Start-up Advice

7 Strategies For Development As An Entrepreneur

What follows are seven simplified yet key strategies to develop yourself as an entrepreneur which are a hybrid of the authors’ practical experience and what he has learnt from very successful entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants over several years.

Dirk Coetsee

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What lies behind you and what lies in front of you are tiny matters compared to what lies inside of you” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson


I am an entrepreneur, I surround myself with business minded people, I am privileged enough to be mentored by great leaders. I speak to visionaries, I write about them and learn from them.

What follows are seven simplified yet key strategies to develop yourself as an entrepreneur which are a hybrid of the authors’ practical experience and what he has learnt from very successful entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants over several years.

A wise man once told me, “A higher level of consciousness does not mean you are better than anybody else it just means your mind sees from a higher vantage point and therefore you see clearer than most.”

Related: 8 Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Advice For When The Going Gets Tough

Those wise words lead us into explaining the first strategy:

1. Expand your consciousness

Simply put your consciousness is nothing but what you are aware of. By increasing what you are aware of through experience, study and honest self-reflection and by inquiring deeply into every aspect of your business as to increase the quality of your awareness you are enhancing the quality of your experience as an entrepreneur.

The second strategy often referred to as priming or framing is commonly used by successful entrepreneurs:

2. Priming or framing

Priming or framing is creating a positive mindset first thing in the morning which builds mental strength and the capacity to face the day with a very good attitude. This is, in essence, done by creating a morning ritual or habit for yourself which can take whatever form you prefer, as long as the outcome of it is a stronger and better you.

Some prefer meditation and/or prayer. Others repeat affirmations in the mirror. Some take the quiet early morning hours as the opportune time to read and learn more about their craft. Exercise is another way to start your day in a positive way. See this exercise of Priming or framing as an investment earning compound interest over a period of time.

nelson-mandelaGoogle whom any famous leader or entrepreneurs’ mentor was and a name or many will most certainly pop up. Nelson Mandela’s’ mentor was Oliver Tambo, Warren Buffet holds the Dale Carnegie certificate proudly displayed on his office wall in high regard, the famous investor Ray Dalio is still coached by Tony Robbins.

Related: (Podcast) Being An Entrepreneur Is Painful

That explains why you should:

3. Be willing to be mentored

When I facilitate training or a coaching session a common objection to being mentored is: “ Yes , but I do not know anyone that could mentor me.”

Honestly, what a lame excuse. Most servant leaders understand that it is part of their duty to society by leaving other servant leaders and/or entrepreneurs behind and are actually just waiting for your call.

It is really as simple as that, make your list of people that you look up to and want to be mentored by and call them, sincerely tell them how much you admire them and ask for guidance and mentorship. To those whom knock sincerely a door will be opened.

There is no such thing as a “self-made man” as everyone has received some help in some shape or form along their journey of entrepreneurship.

It is much harder to give up on something that you really have worked hard for over a long period of time as opposed to something that you have approached with half-hearted intent and little effort.

Therefore:

4. Hard work compounded by smart work

Hard work is not only something that you should do to stay ahead of the competition but a necessity in order to build resilience.

When you have lost sight of your purpose and vision as an entrepreneur decision making becomes drastically harder, your morale might be affected negatively, and your bank balance might suffer as a consequence.

So:

5. Ensure that you have constancy of purpose and a clear Vision

A very effective way of priming and/or framing is to remind yourself of your purpose and vision every morning. Make your Vision and purpose visual by displaying it clearly at your office. An entrepreneur cannot talk regularly nor enthusiastically enough about his or her vision and purpose. When you have not wholeheartedly bought into a vision and purpose how can you expect your team to?

ian-fuhrThose whom embody servant leadership of which the founder of Sorbet, Ian Fuhr is a prime example know that unconditional giving as a principle not only builds character but empowers others so that we can not only grow as businesses but as people.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

That is the reason for:

6. Giving without expecting anything in return

When you give of yourself unconditionally you have a true servant heart and your clients will not only be loyal, but they will love you in general. Giving unconditionally feels good and receiving unconditionally places no burden on you and creates a wonderful and vibrant work atmosphere, generally speaking.

When you only take a stand on your principles and values during good times yet allow them to crumble in the face of challenging times “your house is divided and cannot stand”.  Your principles and values must become ingrained practises and not just frivolous words.

Taking the aforementioned into account:

7. Have non-negotiable principles and values that you live by

As an example, if when respect is a non-negotiable value that you live by you will refrain from losing emotional control and will be willing to walk away from a conversation where someone dis-respects you.

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Start-up Advice

7 Ways A Tech Start-up Is Like Starting A Band

Building a successful tech start-up and putting together a band are more similar than most entrepreneurs and musicians would like to admit.

Alice Goldstein

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Building a successful tech start-up and putting together a band are more similar than most entrepreneurs and musicians would like to admit. The truth is that both of them require a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, self-induced poverty and other big sacrifices. Like a startup, says Alex Grossi of Quiet Riot:

“The process that once entailed a songwriter or record label spending countless hours and dollars recording, manufacturing and marketing music is gone. It is now up to the artist to figure out what the next move is in the industry.”

Succeeding in the music or the business worlds can also bring a number of great benefits. Becoming a successful entrepreneur can open up doors to new, more fulfilling projects and rewards. Moreover, you will have more control over your future ventures and have a big role in the success of any project you work on.

Visualising your tech start-up as a band can help you get creative, and may even help catapult your company to success. Because of this, I’ve put together a list of seven ways a tech start-up is like putting together a band, so you can put on your inspirational hat and make your company more than just a one-hit-wonder.

1. Be honest with your skill set

The first thing you need to consider when starting a band is the instrument you can play and at what level. The very same can be said for tech start-ups. Technology now influences virtually every single part of modern society, so you need to consider the skills you have available and determine how you can use them to create a good product.

David Ellefson, the bassist from Megadeth, owner of Ellefson’s Coffee and EMP label group shared his learning experience forming and playing in rock bands, in which he said:

“The idea of a rock band is selling this dream of the ultimate creative journey and endless freedoms. Yet, things like showing up on time, knowing your role (and respecting the roles of others!), disciplined practice, marketing &; promotion are as much part of the band experience as getting onstage and rocking the house each night.

Related: How Craig Bright And Brian Little Launched Rocking The Daisies

I learned many years ago that just because I was successful in music didn’t qualify me to be an expert in other fields, too. My successes came as a result of discovering my passion and honing in on skills that came natural to me. That led to relationships that opened doors for my success. We’ve all been blessed with certain skills, talents, and abilities and having success (and happiness!) usually lies with our passion allowing us to be the best we can be with those abilities in a chosen field.”

The good thing is that you don’t only have to focus on your particular expertise. Each band member offers a valuable set of skills that contribute to the quality of the music. In this case, your band members will be your start-up team. Take a look at what each team member brings to the table and make sure you are applying them to their full potential.

2. You need to be driven by passion

business-passionJust because you love music doesn’t mean making music will just happen, and in the words of Phil X the guitar player of Bon Jovi:

“There are no short cuts. You have to kick your own ass before you kick everyone else’s.”

Once you have identified your passion, the next step is acquiring the skills to realise your dream. This may seem tricky at first, but try to get creative and figure out a way to combine your skills and passions to build a valuable business.

If you are preparing to launch a tech start-up, you should definitely find something you are passionate about. Not only will this make your work easier, but you will always find motivation to give your best, even on bad days. Moreover, you may find that working on something that you really love will actually bring you joy and work as extra fuel when your tank is running low.

3. Put together a stellar lineup

If you were building a band and you knew the best drummers and bass players in town, you would definitely reach out and try to recruit them, right? Well, the same thing goes for your tech start-up. You should review all your options and scour your connections until you find the combination that best suits your vision.

Now, remember that putting together a killer lineup isn’t only about finding the best of the best. You also need to find a balance and make sure that the talent you bring on board will compliment the whole team. If you have two great candidates, but you think they won’t work well together, you are better off choosing the one that works best with the rest of your ensemble.

4. Practice makes perfect

practiceOne of the most important aspects of having a band is practicing frequently. Musicians already have a high level of dexterity, but that doesn’t mean the band will sound good right off the bat. By practicing together, you can make sure everyone is on the same page and organise your act.

As a start-up, the equivalent of having band practice is working as a team. Although everyone learned the skills needed to carry out their specific tasks separately, you also need to work as a team to make sure everyone is in sync.

A good way to do this is to give everyone individual tasks, and also assign at least one communal task a week. This will give you time to sit down with your team members, gauge that everyone is on the same page, and clear the air if they are not.

Related: Will.I.Am: The Man Who Took Music To Mars

5. Networking is the KEY

Any successful musician will tell you that networking is as important as the quality of your music. Networking with the right people can help you land gigs, get your music to the right listeners, and make a name for yourself by rubbing elbows with established industry giants.

The reason why I say that networking is KEY to any tech start-up is because it’s what will enable you to Keep Expanding Yourself. Building connections with established tech companies and influencers can help you get your name out there and land significant contracts. Not only this, you will also be able to gain valuable insights from the people that already thrive in your industry.

6. Find your audience

audienceMost bands already have a good idea of who their followers are or will be, and they focus on getting gigs in venues that will attract these fans. This makes their promotion easier and increases the chances of hosting a successful event. Not only this, in order to adapt to your audience’s changing needs and preferences, you must be ready to diversify wherever necessary.

Marq Torien from BulletBoys put it beautifully “Always know at some point you have to reinvent yourself in your music career. It’s a must, if you want to keep your audience and fans who love what you or your group does. All the great musicians and artists have done so at some point in their careers. Don’t have fear of diversity”. Marq stayed true to his words as their highly anticipated March 2018 Frontiers Records release “From Out of The Skies ” is truly one of their most diverse album to date.

Although it’s a bit more complicated, you should identify your start-up’s perfect clientele in the form of fictional buyer personas. This requires a good amount of market research, but it will give you essential information about your potential customer base. You’ll be able to create marketing campaigns that speak directly to your buyer personas through the channels they use the most as well as diversify based on changes in consumer demand.

Related: Kim Coppen-Watkins On Having And Maintaining Strategic Growth

7. Use all available promotion channels

It’s no secret that the most popular bands are featured on radio, television, the internet, and just about any other channel you can imagine. Besides boosting their collective egos, bands tend to take advantage of all promotional channels they have available because it guarantees it will extend their reach as far as possible.

You should also consider all the marketing channels you have available and take advantage of every single one of them. Now, if you start-up is in its early stages, you may not be able to invest huge amounts into advertising. That being said, you can always get creative and use free marketing channels such as social media platforms, blogs, and YouTube videos.

Finally …

Launching a tech start-up may not sound as glamorous as being in a band, but they are more similar than you may think. Always remember a successful tech start-up requires patience, a lot of behind-the-scenes work, the ability to adapt to change, and a well-organised team. Follow the tips outlined above to pave your way to success and enjoy the perks that come with it!

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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